Who are the most innovative teams in sports? Raise your hand if you had the Timberwolves

Who are the most innovative teams in sports? Raise your hand if you had the Timberwolves

The word innovation gets tossed around a lot. All businesses, in sports and elsewhere, lay claim to innovation, to innovating, to striving for it; but is that really true?

A sports research firm is trying to quantify innovation among top sports leagues and teams, and some of the names on their second annual top-25 list may come as a surprise. Well, not may, they are surprising. The Minnesota Timberwolves, the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves and Phoenix Suns are on it. Not on it are industry-heavyweights the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers or the Los Angeles Dodgers, which share an investor with the research firm, the Sports Innovation Lab.

“You can appreciate the pain that we’re creating for ourselves and others,” Sports Innovation Lab co-founder and CEO Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympic hockey medalist, said, slightly chuckling, of ranking the Dodgers outside the top teams (they ranked 48th).

The metrics assign values to categories including generating revenue from nontraditional sources; a front office that is diverse and has a business intelligence division; investing in business accelerators; community outreach; having a companion women’s team; and engaging fans so they feel they have ownership in the club.

The first four teams are European soccer clubs, and SIL ascribes that result to these teams having less league oversight. North American leagues are far more centralized than their European peers. For example, many European soccer clubs use digital fan tokens that come with benefits, whereas league rules largely preclude them in North America.

This allows European teams more flexibility to try new and different things, especially in foreign markets. The NFL only this year for the first time allowed its teams to market overseas, though they had to bid for countries in a process the league designed.

The first North American team on the list is the Philadelphia 76ers, whose owners Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, also have MLS, NHL and EPL clubs. The Sixers’ distinguishing features, according to SIL, are the club’s business data analytics, its esports squad and front-office and community initiatives.

SIL’s top 25 most innovative franchises

Rank Franchise League
1 FC Barcelona La Liga
2 Real Madrid CF La Liga
3 Arsenal FC EPL
4 Manchester City FC EPL
5 Philadephia 76ers NBA
6 Manchester United FC EPL
7 Atlanta Braves MLB
8 Liverpool FC EPL
9 Dallas Mavericks NBA
10 A.S. Roma Serie A
11 Minnesota Timberwolves NBA
12 Borussia Dortmund Bundesliga
13 Boston Red Sox MLB
14 FC Bayern Munich Bundesliga
15 Washington Capitals NHL
16 Olympique Lyonnais Ligue 1
17 Cleveland Cavaliers NBA
18 Seattle Seahawks NFL
19 Phoenix Suns NBA
20 Golden State Warriors NBA
21 Los Angeles Rams NFL
22 Brooklyn Nets NBA
23 Toronto Raptors NBA
24 Washington Nationals MLB
25 Portland Trail Blazers NBA

The Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams make an appearance at No. 21, which, given their still budding efforts to build a fanbase in L.A. may seem counterintuitive.

“Their startup tech accelerator is a big part of it, they do a fair amount of community work, you know, in the L.A. area, which sometimes has long tails,” said Abe Stein, SIL’s head of innovation. And the team is developing office space, retail and residences around its stadium.

There are only two NFL teams in the top 25 — the other is the Seattle Seahawks. The list is not about which team has the most revenue — though elite European soccer clubs are at the top — but rather clubs that lead in areas like fan engagement. This could be as simple as letting fans use highlights in social media posts.

“Does it mean that they need to be a little bit more relaxed with their IP protection, to enable the fans to make a highlight reel?” Stein asked of what teams can do to engage better with fans.

So why are the Timberwolves on the list? One is the ownership of the WNBA’s Lynx. Also, SIL points to the team’s database marketing, a venue NBA commissioner Adam Silver has called the “gold standard,” and the integration of the team’s practice facility into the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center.

“‘Hey, the Minnesota Timberwolves, they’re like, way down on a traditional list’; we’re like, ‘Yeah, but they’re doing these other things that again, denote potential,’” Ruggiero said.

Another surprise is the Atlanta Braves, which because of their mixed-use development around the stadium scored high on nontraditional revenue (traditional revenue is tickets, concessions, sponsorship and media). Also, because the team is owned by publicly listed Liberty Media, fans literally can own shares in the parent company.

At the top of the list is FC Barcelona, which, despite its financial troubles, has impressive fan outreach efforts, including a polyglot of social media channels (nine different languages). Barca also offers a diploma for developing soccer front-office skills.

Development adjacent to a venue is a big factor in the ranking, Ruggiero said. She points to the New York Knicks and Rangers as essentially landlocked and unable to innovate in this area.

“If you really want to connect to fans, which we believe is before, during and after, it’s not just game day, it’s not just for the game, you know, (a Madison Square Garden), a venue that has a limited footprint is going to struggle in the future,” she said. The Knicks and Rangers play at MSG.

The for-profit SIL advises teams and leagues across sports and hopes to expand the innovation list beyond the top-10 sports leagues by revenue. That meant no women’s or Major League Soccer teams among the 231 SIL ranked in the latest report.

The rankings are just one group’s opinions about what constitutes innovation. But Ruggiero said, “I hope this fuels some conversation in the industry, because there’s a lot of groups that are well known and have great PR teams, and they’re super visible. And they talk about innovation. And so we’re trying to, again, cut through some of that, which, have you made technology investments? Are you structured in a way that we believe will support innovation both today and tomorrow?”

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